DICKY MAEGLE WAS fast that day, his legs still fresh in the second quarter of the '54 Cotton Bowl.
Maegle, the Rice halfback and future College Football Hall of Famer, took the handoff near his own goal line, turned the corner and blazed along the Alabama bench, on his way to a sure 95-yard touchdown.
From the sideline, Tide fullback Tommy Lewis, who'd scored his team's only points in the first quarter, turned to see Maegle racing across the midfield chalk. In one second, one never-ending second, he launched himself bareheaded and laid Maegle out in one of the most memorable tackles in college football history. The refs gave Maegle his touchdown, and Rice would eventually win 28-6, while Lewis was left to wonder forever about what he had done. He lost his composure, he would later say as a guest with Maegle on The Ed Sullivan Show, because he was so full of love for the colors on his chest that he had to come off the sideline and knock that man down.
The tackle lives on and on, as close as Google, or your granddaddy's memories. It is one of my favorite college football stories, not for its strangeness but because it proves something I've always believed: that no matter how much you dress it up or poke at it, college football is, at its core, a kind of beautiful chaos, something science, and certainly not people, can neither manage nor explain.
THE PAST IS dead, despite what Faulkner said. Or so I've been told. An editor at this magazine, figuring he might get yet another story from me in which I evoke snapping turtles, thunderstorms, my grandma and the revered bones of Paul "Bear" Bryant, did his best to steer me away from Southern antiquity and into the 21st century, into the brave new era of the College Football Playoff -- into the future. "I need you," he told me, not unkindly, "to look beyond the kudzu."
You're right, brother. The BCS, like the wishbone and the tear-away jersey, has been discarded. And with it, many fans hope, goes a landscape utterly dominated by teams south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, though that may have been an inevitability, a leveling of the universe, regardless of a playoff.
So in this historic year, as we jettison a much-criticized and whined-about system for something simpler, less scientific, a four-team tournament pieced together by a small panel of important, impartial people, what in God's name should we expect?
The answer, I believe, is just as simple: It is, for most of us, merely a new box for the same ragged, battered hat.
Now, I also believe it will be a great year, from the stands. In a time in which Lane Kiffin can take the sideline as Alabama's offensive coordinator and the rivers do not run backward, a time when the reigning Heisman winner can evade any defense in the ACC but not a security guard at the local supermarket, this should be wicked fun.
The storylines are rich: The once-untouchable conference is vulnerable, after Jimbo Fisher and Florida State unseated the SEC by modeling a program after, of course, the SEC; the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer are out to prove that they're still the big brother, free to give noogies to the little boys of the Big Ten; Texas has discarded the ol' bull Mack Brown for Charlie Strong, who apparently got in trouble before his office furniture even arrived for not being what the big-hat-wearin' boosters had in mind; Steve Sarkisian is rumored to be on the hot seat and has not yet led his Trojans through jumping jacks; Oregon welcomes back Marcus Mariota, who might just keep me catnappin' through the midnight matinee; and Les Miles ... well, is sure to do something.
But overshadowing it all is a great anticipation -- and uncertainty -- for a first-ever playoff, the one thing that might possibly distract from Jameis Winston, who won the last-ever BCS title under a cloud of an accused sexual assault for which he was never charged, then, bizarrely, was issued a citation after stealing ... crab legs?
If this season is not going to be wilder than a drunken goat-roping, I do not know what is.
But the objectivity will, of course, not be a cure-all for anything; the process will continue to be flawed and inexact, as the BCS was. To believe otherwise is to ignore all common sense and deny human nature, and human nature is essential; we included the computers in the process but never really trusted them. No system constructed of plastic, metal and glass can really take into account the subtleties, the emotional import of a single moment. But this new panel will not be infallible either.
The selection committee, mind you, does not purely comprise football professionals; it includes athletic directors, former coaches, one former football writer, a lieutenant general, a former secretary of state, Archie Manning, Scarlett Johansson and Thor, the mighty god of thunder. And angry fans from Southern California to South Texas to South Florida will soon dog-cuss the esteemed members in chat rooms and call-in shows until they exhaust their vocabulary -- though in some areas, that should not take long.
You can bet Condoleezza Rice will recall, fondly, ancient tribal disputes in the mountains of Pakistan and be condemned by the fine people of SoCal as a smarty-pants Stanford professor. Tom Osborne will be called a no-account Big 12 traitor on the Interweb by Wing Nut from Corpus Christi and scowl himself silly. And Pat Haden will be vilified by the folks in Okeechobee as a sandal-wearing West Coast hippie.
But that's all right. This might be -- at least for us laymen who think this stuff is supposed to be fun -- a joyfully unpredictable year. Don't misunderstand. I want my teams to win every time. But it will always be human drama, human failure and redemption that make this ride worthwhile; you can't polish that, or make it fit onto a series of straight, neat lines.
"HE GRIEVED AND grieved and grieved over that play," said Helen Lewis, who married Tommy Lewis less than two years before that Cotton Bowl. "He was a captain, you know? But people always wanted to talk about that one play." Over their long life together, they would be out to dinner and someone would say: "Oh, you're that Tommy Lewis."
Later, when that person had walked on, she would tell her husband:
"Tommy, I am so sorry."
"Look," he would tell her, "I have to wear it."
But he eventually became famous, for showing people what was under the helmet, for embracing how much he loved this sport and all its beautiful chaos. In 2003, when Tommy Lewis was an old man, Mal Moore, Alabama's director of athletics at the time, asked him to carry the game ball onto the field before kickoff against Kentucky, a thing reserved for distinguished alumni and VIPs. Lewis would later say he was not sure what to expect -- he thought they might boo. But the fans began to wildly cheer him; he almost choked to death, he told his wife, trying not to cry.
Today, after a series of strokes, he resides in an assisted living facility in Huntsville, Alabama. "He doesn't call my name anymore when I walk in the door," Helen told me. But when a teammate came into his room a few years ago, he sang out: "There's ol' No. 82." Science, maybe, can explain that, but not to Helen's satisfaction.
When Mal Moore died last year, I recalled the story he'd told me once. "When I was a little boy, the men in my family would go bird hunting on Saturday afternoons," he said. But he told me the birds often went unshot. The hunters would find the Alabama game on the radio, and there in fields of broom sage, their good dogs milling restless around their feet, they would stand at the open doors of their trucks and hang on every call, perishing one play, resurrecting the next.
"I can still hear it," Mal said, and those memories are what reminded him of how to fix Tommy Lewis' shattered heart, to remind Tommy that the game would continue on, no matter how many times we thought we'd broken it.
AND ISN'T THAT the only thing that makes it any damn fun, the stories, the unexpected of what might happen under the helmet?
Here, in the future, recruiting has become a science unto itself; peewee linebackers and running backs, still clutching their juice boxes, are groomed for greatness. Conditioning has not been left to the good Lord in a long time. Bodies are built, speed manufactured, stamina refined. There is even a way to cheat fate -- Jameis Winston will play with a $10 million insurance policy, to hedge his bet against injury.
Me, I'll be watching Jameis with the same breathless anticipation and dread that I watch Game of Thrones with. You just never know when someone is going to lose his head.
The sophomore quarterback, who has already conquered the world, is -- to mix metaphors -- kind of the Kevin Bacon of college football, never more than a few storylines removed from everyone. One of the first big games of the year will be played by quarterbacks who could not take his crown, or at least keep him from it. West Virginia's Clint Trickett and Alabama's Jacob Coker both left Tallahassee in part because they could not beat out Famous Jameis, and they play each other Week 1 in Atlanta. Although there is a whole universe of football to be played before such a prediction is not laughed at, Coker could wind up facing Winston in a national semifinal, or a final. Now, that is a human story. Roll Tide.
No matter what happens, though, as far as the national championship picture goes, it will happen in the shadow of Jerry Jones' AT&T Taj Mahal. It will be the first national title game to ever be bid on, not tied to tradition. And some fans will be sad about that, especially the older ones, who used to hang on every second of the revered Rose, or the beloved Sugar, long before either was sponsored by an insurance company.
But it doesn't really matter what structure they use to decide it all. Whether your heart bleeds garnet and gold or green and yellow, if your team is winning in it, then it is the right one.
TOMMY LEWIS COULD have hidden from the game all those tortured years. But, Helen told me, it was his life. A lot of people say that, but she believes, especially as a young man, it was true for him. He never stopped going to the games in Tuscaloosa, never stopped sticking out his jaw to let the whole world take a swing; only his failing health finally kept him away.
Before Tommy fell ill, he and Helen went to see the cemetery plot where they would one day rest, side by side. Something made her ask: "What would you do if I had to be buried on a Saturday," on a day Alabama played?
"I'd get the kids to tape it," he said.
"You mean tape the game?" she asked.
"No," he said deadpan.
"And then he grabbed me up and hugged me," Helen said, "and slung me around."
IF ANYTHING IS lost in the playoff era, it may be the drama of the regular season, a drama I enjoyed. I will miss it. The early-season rankings, which meant absolutely nothing and will mean even less, were still a hoot. Expert football minds touted teams that played no defense and no competition at all, and imbued their blowout victories with great significance.
I lounged down here in the 100 percent humidity and giggled myself sore. But it gave those teams a shining moment in the sun -- and the polls -- in the same way a department store mannequin can look good in a hat.
I used to think that the voters, while not as gilded as the playoff panel, would surely see the silliness. And dadgum if I wasn't right; they did see it, and voted the best teams to the top of the poll, just like the computers did, most of the time. Auburn fans, I can tell you, will never forget, or forgive them for '04.
Now the No. 3 team will get its chance. But more cynical fans know the third-ranked team will merely be replaced in the new narrative by the fifth-best team, or the sixth, and cries of injustice will ring anew.
At least Notre Dame will receive no more special treatment, something many fans have griped about since the leather helmet. The smaller conferences will probably be the ones that ultimately suffer. If Boise State is to be in consideration, it must convince the teams that will earn it respect to play on that blue turf. And how long before fans are screaming again, of the inhumanity of it all? If you ask me, it's the blue turf that just ain't right.
But at the end of the day, it hardly matters. The bruisers, the big dogs, as the great Keith Jackson called them, will hunt again. Roll Tide.
Although, I'll admit, nothing is ever, ever certain. This game, Helen Lewis told me, "will break your heart." And still, for as many times as it does, for as many times as they tear it apart and put it back together, we keep on loving it.
Helen, though, has not seen a Tide football game, up close, since her Tommy fell ill. "I don't go without him," she said.
Imagine that, something more important.
Rick Bragg is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and a professor of writing at the University of Alabama. He won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and is the author of several books, including All Over But the Shoutin'.